Saina Nehwal’s admirers notice a passing resemblance between her and Emma Watson, who plays Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter movies. Like Hermione, Saina also knows how to make magic. The badminton court is her Hogwarts, her Yonex ArcSaber 7 racquet her wand.
The 20-year-old Saina is not an ephemeral light in the Indian sporting firmament. She has been giving results for four years in a demanding sport played in over 150 countries. Her breakthrough win was the 2006 Philippines Open. She has something to show for every season since. In 2007, she became the National champion and won the National Games gold. In 2008, she became the World junior champion and reached the quarter-finals of the Beijing Olympics. Last year, she won her first Super Series title in Jakarta, Indonesia. This year, she’s won three titles in three weeks (Chennai, Singapore, Jakarta), the latter two Super Series. This is comparable to Prakash Padukone’s sweep of the Swedish, Danish and All England crowns in 1980.
Saina is now No 3 among 528 ranked players. Padukone apart, no individual Indian sportsperson has been ranked as high. She received the Padma Shri and the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award before her 20th birthday. Early, some thought. But clearly well-deserved.
Asked by Open what parts of her game contributed to her 15-match winning streak, Saina says, “My stamina, defence and net game. By the third week I was a bit tired physically, but I could last it out.”
Saina earned $18,750 in Jakarta and $15,000 in Singapore. The Indian Open win in Chennai brought $9,000. Harvir Singh, her father, must be relieved. While not penurious, the Nehwals are middle class people. In the days before Saina got any kind of assistance, Singh had to withdraw from his savings to keep Saina’s career afloat.
Despite her success, Saina, ‘Steffi’ to friends, there is no sign of arrogance in her behaviour or tone, at least not in public. Her accent does not have affectation. Quite the opposite. She pronounces “net” as “nate”. Her beloved Honda City, Shah Rukh Khan movies and the rare cup of ice cream are her only indulgences.
High life has opened its doors. It has extended a Champagne glass towards her. Anupam Kher, Abhishek Bachchan and Karan Johar tweeted their congratulations after her Three-peat. Kher called her “the most focused sportsperson in the country today”. But Saina isn’t getting swayed. Perhaps it has something to do with the ‘Yoga Nidra’ compilation she listens to during tournaments.
“People will start talking about it,” she said once when asked about resisting the cocktail circuit. “If I lose a few matches, they will say, ‘She’s been partying, going out’. I’m scared of that.”
On the court, however, nothing scares Saina. “She is fearless,” says Aditi Mutatkar, once her rival and now a follower. “I have been mentally strong since childhood,” Saina says.
Saina fears not even the Chinese, who are to badminton what they are to almost every sport in the world. A combination of modern and elemental training methods and discipline has made them the standard bearers, even though the bird game originated in Pune, India. At the Jinjiang Sports Training Base, one of the country’s major badminton centres, shuttlers play in a large pool of quartz sand. It helps improve movement and flexibility. Exactly what you need.
So kick as much European ass as you want, you do not belong in badminton until you prove yourself against the Chinese. Saina did it in Indonesia last year. She beat two Chinese opponents, Lu Lan and Wang Lin, in the semifinal and final, respectively. She did not sleep that night, only cradled her winners medal. This year, she has left behind four Chinese players on her way to the No 3 spot.
Saina says, “The turning point in my career came during the Beijing Olympics. It gave me the conviction to do well against the best. I am more patient now on court and let the opponent make mistakes.” Her next goal is more victories in events that matter, not so much the ranking. “I’m not worried about my ranking. There are important events like the World Championship, the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games, and I want to perform well in these events. But I am very happy that I am world No 3 now.”
Badminton and tennis are both racquet games. It is common for badminton players to have a hot nut for tennis and vice versa. One of Padukone’s cherished memories is meeting Bjorn Borg at an airport. Nandu Natekar, India’s greatest shuttler before Padukone, first had tennis dreams and reached the finals of the Nationals, where Ramanathan Krishnan proved insurmountable and prompted the switch to badminton. Saina’s own sporting idol is Roger Federer.
Yet, the two sports are fundamentally diverse. In tennis, movement is mostly lateral. Forehand to backhand. This is demanding, but not intense as in badminton, where movement is front and back. One instant, you are arching backwards to swat a high overhead toss (also known as ‘the clear’), the next you are lunging forward to a retrieve a drop near the net. To get an idea of the workload, imagine a cricketer jumping for a high catch behind his head, then throwing himself forward for a low one. Imagine him doing this many times, as that is what a badminton player would have to do to win a point.
Saina does drills like the ‘Multifeed’, to prepare for furious rallies. The player is fed around 30 shuttles anywhere on the court. They all have to be hit. A rest of 30 seconds, then 30 birds more. She also kills herself on the treadmill. She runs 15 minutes at 10.5 kmph, the next 15 at 11 kmph and then 30 minutes at 12 kmph. She signs off with a 10-minute burst at 14 kmph. Her dog’s name is Macho, but she is the physical animal.
(While on drills, Lin Dan, the men’s superstar from China, has a routine that will make you shake your head in awe. He keeps an empty cylindrical box of shuttle cocks on one end of the court and proceeds to hit shots from the other that drop right into the box.)
Saina is the main reason why the garden of Indian badminton is in relative bloom. This February, Premier Brands agreed to sponsor the sport for an amount of Rs 7.5 crore and a period of three years. Saina is also popular among youngsters. Messages of support and admiration pour in on websites in response to reports of her victories.
There are also youngsters who are won over by her charm. During Saina’s felicitation by Rajashree Birla at the Bombay Gymkhana club last year, Nandu Natekar, well past his seventies, could not stop raving about Saina’s smile.